Betts hits big time on biggest stage

NEW YORK -- At the ripe age of 26, which makes him the senior member of the Boston Red Sox rookie class, Brock Holt is two years removed from his big league debut, which he made with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012.

How did that day compare to Mookie Betts’ first night in the majors?

"I don’t think I had as much hype for my opening night," Holt deadpanned after the Sox beat the New York Yankees 8-5 on Sunday night.

It’s a little silly to call it Mookiemania, the kid has to prove he can play first. But the anticipation has been building all season for a glimpse of this 21-year-old comet shooting through the Red Sox minor league system, hurtling from one of the lowest rungs, Class A Greenville, at the start of the 2013 season, through Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket in a matter of weeks this season.

Sunday night, with right fielder Shane Victorino recovering from an epidural in his back and the Sox's offense in dire need of an infusion of life, Betts played his first game in the major leagues. Like Jackie Bradley Jr. a year ago Opening Day, his debut took place on the game’s biggest stage, Yankee Stadium. Like Bradley, Betts made an immediate impact.

Betts bounced sharply into a double play in his first big league at-bat in the second inning, but grounded a single up the middle for his first big league hit in the fourth. He was thrown out attempting to steal by Yankees catcher Brian McCann to end the inning, but in the sixth, he walked and came around to score on a sacrifice fly by Dustin Pedroia.

"It was fun to watch, especially because he’s a good kid who works hard," said Holt, who so far has set the standard for all Sox newcomers this season, claiming a leadoff spot that was begging to be filled and leading all AL rookies with a .321 average through 48 games.

"Finally," Holt said, "we get to see Mookie Betts play, as opposed to just hearing about him."

The Nashville native, a former state bowling champion who received as many scholarship offers to bowl as he did to play baseball (he thought he was going to the University of Tennessee before the Sox drafted him in the fifth round in 2011 and persuaded him to do otherwise), was given a day Saturday to get acclimated to his new circumstances.

He watched the Red Sox win Saturday night on Mike Napoli’s ninth-inning home run, then heard himself announced Sunday night on the Yankee Stadium PA system -- "Batting eighth, playing right field and making his major league debut, Mookie Betts."

His mother and father, Diana and Willie Betts, and his fiancée, Brianna Hammonds, watched from section 228 in the second deck. "They told me to go play and have fun," Betts said.

The ESPN cameras were there for the nationally televised game, and the reporters outnumbered the players in the clubhouse. A much different scene, Holt said with a smile, than the one that greeted him as a September call-up by the Pirates in 2012, and he pinch-hit in the eighth inning in Milwaukee, walking on four pitches.

"None of that," he said. "I didn’t have 100 media people talking to me before the game. That’s something you’re definitely not used to, but you’re going to get a lot of media with the Red Sox. Double that, playing at Yankee Stadium."

Betts said he had "a little jitters" when he stepped into the box for the first time against Yankees right-hander Chase Whitley, but insisted they evaporated after the first pitch.

"Same game," he said.

"I just felt relaxed. The same game I’ve been playing the whole time. I didn’t want to put any extra pressure on myself today."

By the time he batted for the first time, having already played an inning in right field, he’d been introduced to the more, shall we say, outgoing members of Yankees fandom, who accorded him the same courtesies they typically extend to visitors from Boston.

"Luckily, guys told me to expect it," he said. "But nothing too creative, no."

Betts came here after having reached base in all 23 games in which he played for Pawtucket. That streak began at one Sunday night, in a game in which every member of the Boston lineup reached base, a rarity for a Red Sox team that had averaged just 2.4 runs in its previous 14 games.

"Great at-bats," praised Pedroia, whose sacrifice fly brought Betts across the plate with his first run scored in the big leagues. "He controlled the strike zone, controlled his at-bats, especially facing guys he’d never seen before. Real mature at-bats for his age, just coming up.

"He’s great, man, a great kid who loves to work, asking questions. Fun to be around."

Holt, Bradley, Xander Bogaerts and now Betts. Four rookies breaking into the lineup of the defending World Series champions. Only one defending champion in the past 70 years has had even three rookies play 40 or more games the following season, and that was the 1998 Florida Marlins, who stripped their team of stars for financial reasons.

Unlike Holt, Bradley and Bogaerts also came with glowing advance notices. They have both struggled this season, Bogaerts sitting down Sunday after recording just six hits in his last 66 at-bats. But for all of them, the journey has just begun.

Sunday night, Mookie Betts became more than just a name fraught with possibility. The proof? After he collected his first hit, a most uncommon player extended the common courtesy of tossing the ball into the Sox dugout. The deliveryman? Derek Jeter. He is 40 years old now. He was 20 years and 337 days old when he made his big-league debut.

On that day, Jeter was no different than Mookie Betts. Bright-eyed and full of promise.